One Republican's plot to overthrow Nancy Pelosi

An Idaho Republican wants his party to team up with a handful of Blue Dog Democrats to oust the House Speaker

Published July 2, 2010 4:01PM (EDT)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif.  gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Jose Luis  Magana) (AP)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) (AP)

A Republican congressman from Idaho is openly promoting the idea of making Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, the chamber's next speaker.

Rep. Mike Simpson laid out his plan for Roll Call:

The scenario, as Simpson sees it, runs like this: Democrats lose a bunch of seats but cling to a narrow majority. If a handful of Democrats withhold their votes for (Nancy) Pelosi, Democrats would have to put up another candidate, or else Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) would become Speaker.

“I’m trying to help Steny,” Simpson said with a smile. “If it gets close enough, six or eight Blue Dogs could make the difference,” he added, referring to the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats.

This is an intriguing, if utterly impractical and unrealistic, bit of mischief. The kind of cross-party alliance that Simpson is advocating isn't unheard of at the state legislative level, but in the ultra-polarized U.S. House of 2010? Not going to happen.

First, Simpson's plan probably gives too much away. If the GOP is only a handful of seats of a majority, why not try to compel a few Blue Dogs to switch parties and help make Boehner speaker? They could offer the Blue Dogs improved committee assignments (maybe chairmanships?) and protection in the 2012 elections (well, as much protection as a national party can offer these days).

That would probably be more attractive to the Blue Dogs than the option Simpson is proposing, which would have them remain Democrats -- something that would have no value to them anymore, since they'd immediately be frozen out of the national Democratic Party. And why would Hoyer ever go for this arrangement? Sure, he'd get to be speaker -- but he'd have no real power, since he'd be at the mercy of about 220 rabid conservatives who would want him to repeal the healthcare law he just killed himself to help enact.

It's also fair to wonder whether Simpson has ever actually looked at Hoyer's voting record. The Maryland Democrat's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is just 7 percent. Pelosi's is 3 percent. There isn't much that separates them ideologically. Yes, Hoyer tends to have a better relationship with the Democratic caucus' Blue Dogs, but a lot of that has to do with personality and leadership style. It's not like he's the Ben Nelson of the House.

Still, Simpson's idea does raise an interesting question: What will happen to Pelosi if November really is a bloodbath for Democrats? Mike Madden looked at this a while back and concluded that, even if the GOP wins back the House, she'll continue leading the Democrats. This seems counter-intuitive -- aren't leaders supposed to step down when their party gets wrecked? -- but I think it's probably right.

The main reason, as Mike pointed out, is how well she's insulated herself from a potential challenge. The Democratic leadership ranks are filled with older men who just aren't likely to unite half the caucus behind a coup.

Hoyer is Pelosi's biggest threat, but he just turned 71 -- and he's been beaten by Pelosi before. Then there's James Clyburn and John Larson. Clyburn will turn 70 in a few weeks and is not seen as a threat to Pelosi. And Larson owes his presence in leadership to Pelosi; she orchestrated his upset win in a 2006 leadership race over New York's Joe Crowley -- an ambitious Hoyer protege. Crowley would have ultimately been a threat to Pelosi. Larson isn't. There's also Chris Van Hollen, who is now running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But he'll have little sway with members if Democrats lose big this fall, given the key strategic role he's playing in the party's campaign strategy.

It's also worth noting that most of this fall's Democratic losses will probably be in marginal districts, where the incumbents tend to be more moderate and conservative. In other words, Pelosi's hand may actually be strengthened by a strong Republican showing, because it could leave the Democratic caucus more liberal (and Pelosi-friendly) than it now is.

For now, at least, it looks like the only person who'll have the power to remove Nancy Pelosi from her leadership perch will be...Nancy Pelosi.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Nancy Pelosi D-calif.